Mani Ratnam’s filmography is what artistic heroism looks like. A writer and director who made his mark in the South, he often oscillates between the Tamil and Hindi film industries. In a world where directors and writers tether themselves to genres and stars, Ratnam has often flirted profoundly with genre, mood, and narrative structure, tethering himself to only his technicians who jointly create his flights of imagination- feverish, tactile, brave, but not often successful- critically and commercially.
Below are films of his that we have curated across streaming platforms. This is the beauty of streaming platforms, isn’t it? All the films I have listed have performed miserably at the box-office. Giving them space in the internet ether, is like giving what once seemed odd and unlikeable, a second chance. Or for many, even a first.
Amazon Prime: Kaatru Veliyidai (2017)
T’is the season for toxic masculinity. After making a sweet, breezy, and unproblematic OK Kanmani (streaming on Netflix), it behooves Ratnam’s repute to make something deeply discomforting. Kaatru Veliyidai is the portrait of an airforce pilot (a very dashing Karthi with a discomforting gaze) reconciling to his penchant for emotional violence when he is subjected to physical violence as a prisoner of war. The object of his emotional violence is a doctor, played with timid ferocity (yes, an oxymoron, a Ratnam heroine) by Aditi Rao Hydari. It is also, in the wake of the #MeToo allegations against the film lyricist Vairamuthu, a telling moral that poets too, even the ones who produce and pronounce visceral, enchanting verses, like the main character can be vicious. Even Karthi’s long apologetic poetic monologues elicit frustration. No one buys into the words, as the film shows that words can be taken back, just as easily as they pour forth. Promises of marriage, family, togetherness, respect… it’s all air-talk.
But that is how love works with Ratnam. You love, and that is all. Like an unsteady heartbeat, the moral compass is shattered, ego is shattered, self-worth is shattered, all in pursuit of love, or just being in the company of someone you love. Not many get this idea, fewer relate.
Kaatru Veliyidai was battered critically, and commercially, largely because people refused to believe such characters would exist. That a strong-willed woman could become docile and desperate under the gaze of a man she adores, but then emerge strong-willed again. But that is how love works with Ratnam. You love, and that is all. Like an unsteady heartbeat, the moral compass is shattered, ego is shattered, self-worth is shattered, all in pursuit of love, or just being in the company of someone you love. Not many get this idea, fewer relate. The film was destined to fail.
Even if the story does not hit home, the frames will capture your imagination. Saturated and then de-saturated, lit like a fairy tale (Vaan), or a sexual fantasy with dark silhouettes and deep colour (Sarattu Vendiyila) or homesick twilights (Azhagiye) the perspective of cinematographer Ravi Varman (who also shot Ram-Leela, Barfi, and Jagga Jasoos) is one for ages to adore.
Hotstar: Kadal (2013)
What do you think happens when an atheist makes a deeply and unironically religious film?
One of the most enduring images of Ratnam’s Iruvar (available on Amazon Prime) is the opening shot of the mother holding onto her little son as they look out of the moving train. His penchant for showing the relationship between a mother and son is given voice here too. Kadal begins with one of the most heart-wrenching shots of a child and his mother. From thereon it traverses many a path. It becomes about the theological distinction between good and evil, and of the possibility of an ethical crossover.
This film too found itself at the receiving end of brickbats. The fact that it sprawled so many genres was a source of discomfort…But muddying genres is what Ratnam does best. And this is that.
In the midst of this, the child, who grows up orphaned, (Gautham Karthik’s assured debut) is taken up by the pastor (Arvind Swamy), only to be embroiled in a messy narrative that involves being forsaken by the devil (Arjun Sarja), being redeemed by a mentally challenged angel (Thulasi Nari’s debut), and being nourished by the father. It is an incredibly engaging and nuanced film. Rajiv Menon’s lens caresses the beaches and jostles with weapons in the same breath. Look out for the song Adiye that swoops in out of nowhere, with Christian believers in pagan choreography and Blues voices, shot, scored, and written to bizarre perfection.
This film too found itself at the receiving end of brickbats. The fact that it sprawled so many genres was a source of discomfort. Ratnam too would later in an interview with Baradwaj Rangan speak of how the arc of the angel, that of love, could have been etched better. But muddying genres is what Ratnam does best. And this is that.
Netflix: Dil Se (1998)
This was Ratnam’s foray into the Hindi cinema industrial complex. He shattered it. (Though commercially, the film was shattered) In an industry that prides itself in moral absolutes, he made a movie entirely, about the grey area. Revolutionary or terrorist? Infatuation or love? Heroine or vamp?
It charts the story of Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) and his fatal attraction towards the mysterious wanderer Meghna (Manisha Koirala). This film has gathered a cult status over the years due to the popularity of its music, the stunning visuals framed by Santosh Sivan (who also shot Mani Ratnam’s latest Chekka Chivantha Vanam, streaming on Hotstar), and lyrics by Gulzar.
Given what is happening in Kashmir, this film produces a gaze at once, enthralling and necessary.
Here, too, Ratnam flirts with the bizarre. 20 years after the release of the film, Anupama Chopra reminisced on twitter.
“I still remember that first screening of #DilSe, the confusion when Satrangi started – someone even asked if the reels got mixed up”
So rarely had lust been portrayed with such delicate framing, without suggestive shots, this film baffled its audience. Film analysts have spoken about the film’s depiction of seven stages of love in Urdu literature, the sprawling geography that literally draws out a love triangle (North East, Kashmir/Delhi, Kerala), metaphors of state and insurgency, lust and humour. It is a film that not only has aged well, but aged more meaningfully, mining more and more profundity with every additional viewing. Given what is happening in Kashmir, this film produces a gaze at once, enthralling and necessary.
Zee5: Anjali (1990)
Ratnam (in this film he is credited as Rathnam) is known to portray childhood with endearing nuance. For him, a child has both the capacity for deep violence and deep love. He holds both the stubborn arrogance, and the innocent endearments side-by-side. Though, Kannathil Muthamittal (A Kiss on the Cheek, streaming on Netflix) is the finest example of this, Anjali, the story of a family reconciling to a new entrant, a dying mentally challenged three-year-old, is one of the films that laid the foundation for this sensitivity.
In Anjali you see an artist in bloom. The kids of the colony are on a West Side Story-like choreographed journey against the disciplined hypocrisy of the adults. It is intercut with a subplot of murder, bail, and jail. The dialogues and plotting are very 1990s, some of it a function of the Hindi dub, and some of it is just the screenplay.
Photographed in hazy blue and brown frames, it is a celebrated film of its time. It won three National Awards, and was India’s selection for the Oscars. But failed commercially. Good art isn’t always good commerce, no? The Many Ratnams pulsate on courageously nevertheless.